Best Practices for Styled Event Shoots

Styled shoots are a popular topic of discussion in wedding planners groups and circles--some people are in favor of them and some not.  Personally, I think they can be a really effective tool under some circumstances; but a real waste of time or money, under the wrong ones.  In any event, having styled many shoots, whether for submission, my portfolio, or for magazines-- not to mention the dozens of shoots I've helped produce and get published from the Inspire Design Workshop-- I've come up with what I think are some Best Practices to maximize effectiveness and success.

Photography: Southern Amore

Photography: Southern Amore

Photography: Greer Gattuso

Photography: Greer Gattuso

HAVE AN OBJECTIVE

As creatives, we find inspiration in all kinds of ways, and as event designers, especially, we're always dreaming up different beautiful scenes in our minds as we work for our clients. Merely having a beautiful vision isn't enough of a reason to take on the work, effort and cost of a styled shoot. Without a clear goal in mind, this is merely a hobby .or extra-curricular leisure pursuit.  Since I assume we're all in business with at least some goal of being profitable, I think the first rule of designing and organizing a styled shoot, is that you should have some tangible goal in mind, that will be of actual value to you, such as:

1-To generate beautiful content for a new business/website:   If you are newer to the business and don't yet have a lot of content to share or to create a functional website, a styled shoot might be good way to generate some. Images from real weddings would be ideal but to fill out your portfolio, this could be helpful.

2-To generate new content for a re-branding:   Personally, this has worked well for me. In 2015 I invested in 5 large scale styled shoots (really wanting them to look like real events), to emphasize my focus on design, highlight the style of weddings I wanted to work one, and attract my ideal client. Ultimately this worked wonderfully for me but it's a story worthy of its own blog post and for anyone aiming to do the same, realize this is a huge undertaking that took a lot of resources, time and money.

3-To generate new/relevant content for your online and social media profiles:   Between the Knot, Wedding Wire, Facebook, Instagram and more, there are a lot of places on the internet besides our own websites, where our business is visually represented. If you don't have enough real events, or the type of images you want to represent your brand online, styling a shoot is a great way to generate content for this.

4-To use in marketing media:   This is also a great way to generate beautiful and relevant images for your magazine ads, brochures, media kit, packaging and other means you use to market your brand.

5-To sell a design concept:   If your focus is on event design, sometimes, for the right client, it might make sense to do a detailed mock-up of a potentially lucrative design proposal. In the past, I've done such mock-ups for clients with sizable enough design budgets to absorb the cost, and then enlisted a photographer to capture everything. This is an excellent way to impress high dollar clients and sell a lucrative overall design.  In these cases, depending on how similar the final event design is, I usually just add these images to my portfolio, but ultimately, the goal is that not only will I successfully sell the design but that the final execution will result in a gorgeous real wedding that will get published.

6-To get published:   There are a few benefits to getting published--some more, or less relevant depending on where you are in your business and what niche you're in. There can be some prestige associated with being published but other than the ego boost that provides, you should realistically assess whether that will actually bring you any concrete returns. Does your ideal client consume the blogs or magazines you're hoping to get published by?  If not, this might not be a good use of your time.

Some other benefits though, include being able to list your features on your webpage (on a press page or a "as seen in" list), further lending to your credibility, and adding to your online visibility--the more identifiable images of yours online, the more chances there are for your work to be pinned, re-posted and seen by more eyes, including, for some, potential clients. However, be honest and realistic when assessing this--is your potential client and business niche, such that having your images online will actually result in increased business or moving your business goals forward?  If not, then a styled shoot may prove to be an expensive and time-consuming exercise without much in the way of tangible results for you. So, for example, if many of your ideal brides haven't indicated that they've found you through online images or profiles, or were drawn to you for your design portfolio, think long and hard on how likely it is that future ideal clients will find you this way, if this is your main, or only reason for investing in a styled shoot.

7-To explore your creativity:   I know I started off by saying you should have a clear goal and that I assumed that goal was the pursuit of something of value. Most of the time that means value to your fiscal bottom line but let's face it, most of us are in this because we have a creative heart and value creativity for creativity's sake. Creativity is a muscle that requires exercise or it will atrophy. Even the most sought-after event designer ultimately has their creativity limited, or at least driven by their clients. Sometimes you just want to break free and dream up a design of your own vision and inspiration.  If you have the time, budget and vendor support to make it happen, by all means, go ahead and organize a styled shoot and feed your creative soul!  And who knows, some future client may see it and be inspired to work with you as a result.

COLLABORATION VERSUS CONTRIBUTION

Before you reach out to a single venue or vendor, decide what you want from them. Are you asking fellow creatives to collaborate on an overall design, for which you're seeking their creative input?  Or are asking them to simply provide the elements you need for a clear vision you have in mind?  You'll avoid future hurt feelings, misunderstandings and conflict if you make this clear from the start.  Additionally, it allows potential participants to make an informed decision about whether to participate and how.

For participants who will create or design their particular element, you can imagine your project might be more or less appealing, depending on how much creative control they have over their contribution. I find my bakers, makeup artists, and other creative partners, way more enthusiastic when they know they'll get to flex some creative muscle, and do something they find interesting, or showcase a look or design they've been wanting to add to their portfolios. And this leads us to...

FOOTING THE BILL

What about payment?  Everyone will be providing their time, products, expertise or services, but some will actually have a higher cash outlay than others. Florists, for instance, are often responsible for the most expensive (and most perishable) element of the shoot. Personally, I always try to be mindful of that and therefore ask them for lots of creative input (so it's a collaboration, not just a contribution from them), and try to make the floral design something they have a personal creative interest in.  I also try to keep their wholesale floral costs below $300, so it's not unfairly burdensome--I arrive at that figure because that's about my average cash outlay personally for most of my shoots (usually ranges from $300-500). You can decide for yourself, or discuss with your florists to arrive at a figure that works for you but in general, I think a good guiding principal is to not expect more from others than you're willing to put in, yourself. 

For other participants, especially those making minimal cash outlays, I think it's generally okay to expect that they'll provide their time and services at no charge, provided that these are vendors and creatives I work with habitually, and frequently refer clients to.  In other words...

MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

I don't call on folks I rarely work with, or refer clients to, to do such a big favor--if I do for some reason, just need or want an item or service from someone I rarely work with (and am not likely to work with, with any frequency), then I simply offer to pay for the desired item or service.  Very often they'll end up offering a discount when they find out it’s for a styled shoot but they always appreciate the courtesy and respect of initially offering to pay, rather expecting them, as a total outsider to the project to provide their business for free. When you invite others to participate in your styled shoot, you're asking them to give up their time and energy (even if not actual money), and you need to consider why this would be appealing to them from their perspective. Styled shoots are a great way for a circle of vendors who work together and refer each other often, to showcase how well they work together and promote each other. These faithful colleagues that you frequently refer clients to are likely to be only too happy to participate in a styled shoot with you, but this can also be an opportunity to branch out and collaborate with new vendors you've wanted to forge a relationship with. When reaching out to brand new vendors you've never worked with before, however, keep this principle in mind--you should be able to show how it's beneficial to you both.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Often the first participant to consider is the photographer—they will be involved long after the shoot is finished and they will actually deliver the finished product.  They’ll be involved even longer if you plan to submit. The photographer will edit, organize and share the images, and legally, is the copyright holder unless you’ve made an agreement from the start about transferring those rights.  You should certainly have an understanding with the photographer, if not a legal agreement, about how the images will be used and who will do the work of creating submission packages, if being published is the ultimate goal.  Some publications will only accept submissions from the photographer directly, but many will accept them from the shoot designer as long as you indicate you have the express permission of the photographer.

In terms of the shoot itself, be sure to provide direction and inspiration to the photographer so they understand the kind of mood to capture, the number of angles and the kind of look you’re going for. Pairing with the right photographer is probably the single most important decision you’ll make with respect to the shoot.  The right photographer will enhance your design and bring it to life; the wrong one might doom the shoot to failure, even if inadvertently.  In addition to creative considerations, also discuss practical ones—like the overall number of images you need; making sure to capture images in both portrait and landscape; and capturing multiple angles of the same elements generating maximum content.  It’s also helpful to the photographer to know how the images will be used.  For instance, if the goal is to use them in print, then they might want to shoot a number of images with blank space that can later accommodate graphics and text; if the goal is to mainly use images for your portfolio, determine what orientation is ideal for that; or if the goal is to be picked up by a particular online blog, then they might want to shoot images that fit their technical requirements and fit with the blog’s aesthetic.

A final note about the actual images—in the spirit of making sure the final product is useful for everyone involved, once the other vendors have been selected, I like to ask each one to let me know the kinds of images that will be useful for them as well (not everyone will necessarily have the same goals) and then I create a Master Shot List for the photographer (e.g. shots of hair and makeup for the hair & makeup stylists; detail shots of dress, jewelry and shoes for the bridal shop; and other less obvious shots for the vendors they might not immediately think of) to further guide them as to what to capture.

BE SERIOUS, ORGANIZED & CONSCIENTIOUS

A styled shoot involves a venue, rentals, florals, linens, furniture, possibly cake, models, fashion, beauty, stationery and more. Just like a real event day, there are a ton of moving parts, and people coming together to execute. And just like on event day, you owe it to participants to be organized and clear so the day goes smoothly and efficiently. For me, that usually includes detailed timeline for the day so vendors who aren't needed until later on, don't arrive too early and waste time waiting for things to happen. Figure out the dependencies for the day, then lay out a logical schedule for when specific items and people need to be ready. I then distribute the schedule the week before so everyone knows where to be and when. Make sure to book the venue space long enough to accommodate load-in, set-up and break-down times, and think about drinks and snacks for those who will be there for long periods—be a good host—everyone is more pleasant when they aren’t suffering from low blood sugar!  The more smooth and painless you make the experience for participating vendors, the more likely they'll be to say yes to you in the future.

In addition to treating those working on-site well, you should be mindful of the products that have been entrusted to you.  Vendors providing dresses, shoes, stationery, cakes, jewelry, furniture and more, are trusting that you will treat them with care.  So many vendors who provide products say they are hesitant to participate in styled shoots because of the damage to their property.  I think the shoot organizer owes it to them to take reasonable steps to keep items safe.  Personally, I have my team photograph all products entrusted to us, from several angles, to document the condition of the items.  Then during the shoot, we track those items carefully; we tape the soles of shoes to keep them new; we assist models getting in and out of dresses to protect them from makeup damage; we make sure furniture is lifted, not dragged across venues' historic floors.  Indeed, at my shoots, my Production Manger is there solely to focus on the care and condition of all shoot products, and she carefully wraps and personally returns everything in the condition we received them--with additional "after" photos to document it.

AFTER THE SHOOT

Once you have all the final images from the photographer, what you do next depends on how you plan to use them.  If the images are mostly for internal use for portfolio, website, social media, etc., I share a link to images on Drop Box as soon as they're ready.  If they're for a magazine or will be shopped to magazines and blogs, then participants should already know from your discussions beforehand that there will be some delay after the shoot before images are shared.  To avoid inadvertent early release of the images before they've been picked up and/or published, you may want to hold back access to them until you have a publishing date.  Once you know your shoot will be featured, let all the participants know and indicate the date & publication.  Then the day before they'll be published, send another group email, sharing a link to images and encouraging everyone to shout it from their social media rooftops to build up momentum for the shoot.  Since we're all invested in the project, personally, I always make sure to go around to other vendors' social media accounts and like/comment on the images and posts related to our shoot.

SMART SUBMISSIONS

If your goal is to be published then the smarter you submit, the more likely you are to get selected. First, make sure never to break the Golden Rule in submissions—never submit to more than one blog or magazine at the same time.  If you have submissions with multiple publications at the same time and more than one selects you for an exclusive feature, causing you to have to cancel with one or more others, with some blogs or magazines, that’s enough to get you black-listed from being considered again in the future.  So, only submit to one place at a time.

Second, since you have to submit to one at a time, do so strategically.  Do some research and figure out what the turn-around time for responses is, with various outlets—this can range from 48 hours to 4 weeks or more.  So strategically, you might not want to submit to the places with the longer turn-around times first; instead, knock out the more quick-to-reply places first.

However, the third thing to keep in mind, is also related to strategy, and that is, submit to places that not only help you to achieve your overall goal, but are also a good fit for your design aesthetic.  So, for example, if your goal is just to plump up your “as seen in” list or your press page, you might want to get published in as many different types of publications as possible.  However, if your goal is to be found by a particular type of ideal client, or to build up your credibility with them, then you’d want to target publications that they consume or consider expert.  In other words, if your ideal client has big-budget ballroom weddings, there won’t be much marketing value in being featured in say, Offbeat Bride.

So to summarize: follow the Golden Rule, submitting to only one publication at a time; target publications that advance your overall goal, and, maximize the timing of your submissions by submitting in order or the most timely decisions.

GIVE APPROPRIATE CREDIT

In my opinion, this is the most important practice of all.  Neglecting to give credit to folks graciously contributing their time, effort, products and services to a collaborative project that you will benefit from, is both rude and unprofessional. As creative entrepreneurs, we know how important it is to us to have our talents acknowledged and valued--we, more than anyone, also owe that to our fellow creatives and industry peeps.

The whole point of the styled shoot is to generate some marketing value--either as content for your portfolio, website, online profiles, or print media.  To maximize that potential, all participants benefit when each individual gives appropriate credit every time (every single time) they share the images.  It's really frustrating for contributing vendors to see the finished product shared on social media, without their contributions being properly attributed, no matter how small.  So often, I see styled shoot images shared (especially the further in time it is from the actual shoot), with only the photographer and designer credited. This is unfair to the rest of the team that made your project possible and won't curry you much favor with them for future projects--whether future styled shoots or future potential client referrals.

What's Appropriate Credit?

As the designer of my styled shoots, I always create a Vendor Info Document, which lists all participating vendors, their website, email, and their social media handles (FB and IG).  In addition to that complete list, at the bottom, I also include a vendor credit block, that everyone involved can simply copy and paste, whenever they share images.  I provide this document to whatever blog or magazine selects us to be published (even if it's more information than they require), and email to all participating vendors, both before the shoot, and again when we get picked up.  I also print out copies and hand them out in person on the day of the shoot and drive home the importance of crediting everyone, face-to-face. Sound like a lot of effort?  It is--that's how important this issue is, and as the person initiating the shoot and calling on all these folks to help bring my vision to life, I consider it a serious obligation that I have to them, to not only make sure I give proper credit, but to make sure everyone else (some they might not even know) also gives proper credit. It's not enough to simply try--personally, I consider this the sacred professional responsibility of both the photographer and whomever organizes the shoot, regardless of how the images will ultimately be used by each participant.

Sample

"Thanks so much for helping to bring this styled shoot together--we couldn't have done it without you!  We can't wait to share images from this beauty but please remember not to share images until after they are published since some blogs/magazines won't publish previously circulated images. Once we get published let's help promote each other and remember to list vendor credits whenever sharing images from the shoot. Below, is a handy vendor credit block that you can cut & paste into your IG posts. If you include these images on your blog please hyper link vendor names to their websites (we can help you if you're not sure how) and if you share on FBI please link to their FB pages (just use the "@" symbol and start typing the company name and it should pop up for you).


Planning & Design: @weddingsbylulu | Photography:  @laurencarrollphotography | Floral Design: @erinsteenflowers | Bridal Gown: @pedramcouture | Cake: @bittersweetnola | Menu: @kristenleighld | Invitation Suite: @theideaemporium | Beauty: @justfaceitbeauty | Model: Brie of @starlaunching | Venue: @ilmercatonola | Furniture & Table Top Rentals: @eventrental"

CONCLUSION

Hopefully this has helped you to decide whether organizing a styled shoot is for you, and if it is, provided some insight into best practices for a successful one.  Done right, and for the right reasons, they can be both fun and rewarding but they are undoubtedly a lot of work.  Personally, I’ve used them strategically in my business to successfully fill marketing and branding goals, and when I dreamed up the Inspire Design Workshop, including a styled shoot workshop was a central part of the experience to me—creation & artistry is the obvious byproduct of inspiration, and I wanted to provide attendees with a creative outlet for their inspiration, and have them walk away with tangible work product that could help fuel their businesses forward. 

If you're interested in learning more about building and shaping the design component of your business from industry greats like Eliana Baucicault, Joy Proctor, and Cynthia Martyn, through intimate discussion groups; hands-on design workshops; and working on your own high quality large-scale styled shoot, all while spending 4 days in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, with fellow like-minded creatives, find out more about this all-inclusive experience HERE or register at www.Inspire-DesignWorkshop.com/join-us